Mary Gauthier writes songs with U.S. vets

Louisiana-bred former Cajun restaurateur Mary Gauthier became a singer-songwriter relatively late in life, leaving the culinary world behind to release her debut album “Dixie Kitchen” in 1997, at age 35. Today, at 56, she believes you can still teach an old dog new tricks. She proves it with her new 10th outing, “Rifles and Rosary Beads,” a stark collection of songs co-penned with American veterans as part of Darden Smith’s Songwriting With Soldiers program. She learned about it from her composer chum Darrell Scott, who participated in a retreat four years ago, and urged her to try it, too. “I had no idea about them, but they were doing some powerful work,” she says.

You were reluctant get involved with Songwriting With Soldiers at first, right?

Well, I didn’t know if I could write that fast, because they were doing nine, 10 songs in a day and a half. And I was like, “Jeez! ‘I Drink’ took me two years to write, so how do I do this?” But when the song is not about me in any way, all I have to do is ask the right questions, listen empathetically, and the song comes really quickly. I didn’t know that. As a songwriter, I was always mining my own depths, which were filled with confusion and darkness. So –long story short –I had my first retreat, I fell in love with the program immediately, and I begged Darden to keep giving me as many retreats as possible.

Where are the retreats held?

All over the country at actual retreat centers. There’s one outside of Albany, a ranch outside of Loveland, Colorado, and a place near Austin which is a Catholic retreat center. But when the Catholics aren’t there, they have different groups use the center. Darden has found these places, and we go there with four songwriters and usually 10 veterans, and we pair up with a veteran and listen to their story and ask them questions. And then their story becomes a song.

Have any stories been too scary to re-purpose?

No. I have not ever been afraid. But I cry almost every time. It’s just emotionally powerful to bear witness, because the veterans come to these retreats for a reason: They’ve been wounded, physically, emotionally or spiritually, and they’re looking for help. I think it’s a stereotype that soldiers don’t talk, because my experience is that they will talk if they are met with empathy and no judgment. So we listen, repeat back what they say, and then we find the music that sounds like how they’re feeling and turn that into a song.

Mary Gauthier
Where: Freight & Salvage, 2020 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. March 21
Tickets: $22 to $26
Contact: (510) 644-2020,

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